I have decided to go through Jordon Peterson’s recent book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, and record a commentary here. These are quick notes, which is to say I’m leaving room for reconsideration and changing my mind in the future. Let’s begin.

Rule 1: Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievements.

There isn’t much new material in this chapter, compared with Peterson’s earlier “12 Rules for Life”, with the exception of a few anecdotes. The discussion is organized around his two core concepts, order and chaos, and how living well requires balancing the corresponding forces of order and chaos. We read about the social and cultural character of human being (how a human life is ordered by societal organization), that we are embedded within a social world and our successful functioning must involve successful coordination and cooperation with others. Part of our social coordination is in the (shared) use of concepts. The concept, floor, for example, is useful because it allows us to refer to some particular relevant attribute or function (belonging to some material “stuff”) and successfully ignore other attributes (belonging to the same material stuff).

Another term familiar to Peterson’s readers is hierarchy, which is an ambiguous word. It can be used in describing a hierarchy of goals (how short term goals relate to long term goals) and it can be used in describing human relationships (how a boss relates to an employee). We shouldn’t confuse these two uses. And we shouldn’t equates cooperation with the existence of a hierarchy. There are ways of cooperating with each other, without submitting to one another. Reading Peterson’s discussion, it sounds like any time a group of people get together they not only differ in kinds of skills, but must also differ in degree (better, more skilled vs. worse, less skilled). It’s not surprising that he passes over the term “anarchism”, too quickly and very dismissively. Let me briefly note that anarchism isn’t about disorder. It’s also not about denying each other’s skill and competence.

The Metaphor of the Fool

Peterson points to the role of “the fool” within a social hierarchy, describing the fool as someone who is humble and grateful. The fool, Peterson goes on, embraces his position at the bottom of an organization, adopts a beginner’s mindset and begins working hard according to the rules of the organization. Peterson uses an anecdote to illustrate this metaphor. The anecdote comes from a server he once met at a restaurant. The server told Peterson how his teaching had helped him and had led him to be vigilant, notice and take advantage of opportunities at work.

I agree with Peterson about the utility of the fool metaphor, but I think this chapter doesn’t adequately displayed the concept. Peterson’s narrative of the fool is about someone who gets immersed in the hierarchy, internalizes all the rules and conventions, and eventually becomes top dog within the organization, then somehow turns into a hero-redeemer of the organization. This is all because he began with gratitude and humility! No.

The fool (the joker, the court jester, etc.) doesn’t have to be at the bottom, or be humble, or even grateful. The fool is characterized by not taking the hierarchy seriously. The fool is great, refreshing, full of vitality because s/he doesn’t hesitate to break ranks. In my own experience teaching courses at the university, I occasionally meet this type of person, someone who doesn’t respect me automatically, just because I am a professor. The fool knows that signs of wisdom or authority (age, having degrees, using technical words, etc.) aren’t intrinsically meaningful or valuable. With this type of student, I have to establish my position from scratch. I have to demonstrate that I know what I am talking about. I cannot simply posture and say, “But I have a degree! But I have published…!”. Interacting with “the fool”, is refreshing because this person brings out the fool in me, revealing the fact that we are all equal. Behind my mask as a professor, as a scholar, is a person, a human being. And if I am going to have an authority over someone else, this authority has to be justified, backed by reason, rather than being backed only by convention. Contrary to what Peterson writes, the fool isn’t (necessarily) humble or grateful, and his/her beginner’s mindset isn’t about a total faith in culture and convention, but it’s a mindset that is suspicious of convention. A fresh point of view doesn’t take convention for granted. Peterson’s formula for fools doesn’t work, because it’s a formula that produces sanctioned rebels. Rebels that are approved from within the hierarchy.

Tension between Convention and Creativity

My other main objection (for this chapter) is in response to Peterson’s dichotomy of, on one hand, following rules and conventions, and on the other hand, breaking rules and conventions. The dichotomy that consists of pure convention and pure creativity is artificial. It is based on an abstract, and an extreme, approach to these two concepts. Consequently, the opposition between them is contrived, as is the dilemma Peterson sees at the heart of the person’s participation in the social world. Culture itself includes innovation. Education (e.g., adequate training in the arts) involves developing an appreciation of both repetition and variation, for both convention and violation. Education involves developing a taste both for convention and for counter-convention (which is already, at least partly, recognized by convention). The phrase “variations on a theme” captures the unity, the synthesis, of what Peterson presents exclusively in terms of opposition.

Peterson repeatedly writes that violating rules should be in the service of a “higher good” (or perhaps we should read a higher “rule”). Violations in the present time–if successful–become new rules in the future. If we follow Peterson, it seems like we must agree that breaking rules is ultimately another way of following (higher) rules. His rule-oriented (higher good) approach is consistent with his extremely serious style. Only a higher good would justify playfulness, for a serious guy, like Dr. Peterson! But could we acknowledge the purely explorative aspect of rule violation, or a purely rebellious aspect of rule violation, the possibility that sometimes people don’t have a proper license (in advance) for introducing variations, or violations, acting without extensive pre-meditation about some higher good. Could we acknowledge the value of an artistic impulse, a drive toward new forms of experience and expression? A taste for these types of counter-conventional activity is absent in Peterson’s discussion.

One of the anecdotes in this chapter was about a young woman who came to Peterson for help, but then Peterson noticed how her approach to environmental problems seemed ideological and that she was mindlessly repeating things she had heard elsewhere and demonstrating a “moral superiority”. If I understood correctly, Peterson describes this young woman’s style as counter-cultural or anti-hierarchical, which would be puzzling. I don’t know why we wouldn’t categorize ideology in terms of a problem originating in culture. Peterson praises people who act according to tried-and-tested ways of acting (working at a restaurant, taking a photography class, etc.), but what about the young woman who was talking according to tried-and-tested ways of talking and forming judgment? All these repetitions are honoring some kind of convention. You cannot say the person who is submitting to the organization of a restaurant is conventional, but the person who is repeating a discourse about environmental catastrophes is being destructive and counter-conventional. In other words, Peterson’s several judgments (of good and bad) isn’t about what the two individuals do, but about the cultural and social institutions they participate in (the restaurant chain is good; the environmentalist discourse, or the institutional origin of that discourse, as bad). If this is correct, then his discussion shouldn’t be presented in terms of chaos vs. order, but order vs. order.

That’s all for Rule 1. I will continue with Chapter/Rule 2 in the next part.